April 5, 2006

Tape scandal damages once-dominant Mexican party

By Lorraine Orlandi

PUEBLA, Mexico (Reuters) - Two men gloat, snicker and curse on the telephone about having a writer arrested and driven overnight across country to be jailed for her book linking influential Mexicans to a child prostitution ring.

-- "I gave that old bitch a good head-bashing," one voice growls in the secretly taped conversation aired on Mexican radio. "I sent her a message, we'll see how she replies. She screws us and screws us, so let her learn a thing or two."

-- "I called to thank you," a second man begins. "I know I got you into problems but ..."

-- "No, man. I like this stuff. I agree with you -- sons of bitches -- I mean we're not saints of course, but if someone has proof let them show it. Otherwise shut their mouths."

The first speaker appears to be Puebla Gov. Mario Marin, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 years until President Vicente Fox's 2000 election and is fighting to recapture the presidency in July elections.

The other purportedly is millionaire Kamel Nacif, known as the "denim king" for his factories in Puebla state that make U.S. brand-name jeans. He is the target of international labor complaints.

The pair has been accused of conspiring to jail journalist Lydia Cacho, who exposed the child sex ring, in a case that critics of the PRI say shows the party is still riddled with corruption and influence peddling.

Marin has refused frequent calls to resign since a scandal over the tapes broke in February, hurting the prospects of the PRI's candidate for presidential election in July, Roberto Madrazo.

"This is an example of what can happen to us if the PRI returns to the Mexican presidency," said Martin Barrios, a Puebla rights activist jailed last year in what supporters say was another vendetta by businessmen. "The PRI embodies this."

Cacho's book links Nacif and other powerful figures to businessman Jean Succar, an accused pedophile awaiting extradition from Arizona to Mexico.

Nacif accused the writer of defamation and she was arrested but later freed on bail.

Her supporters say the aim was to silence her but the affair has spotlighted a host of ills in Mexico from press repression to labor exploitation, corruption of justice and child abuse.


The saga has gripped Mexico with a blend of spy novel intrigue and the tackiness of a "telenovela" soap opera.

The recordings, apparently made with a wiretap on Nacif's phone and left on the doorsteps of media, seem to capture him plotting Cacho's December arrest with Puebla officials and even bantering crassly about trying to have her raped in jail.

Many Mexicans were outraged, but journalists and rights workers were not surprised. They say the scandal proves again that swathes of Mexico are still run like private fiefdoms by special interests, despite Fox's efforts to curb rights abuses.

Mario Alberto Mejia, editor at the Puebla daily El Cambio, said Marin began bullying the press into line soon after taking office just over a year ago.

"Suddenly we were being strangled," Mejia said. Twice he was threatened with jail by Marin's functionaries and forced to back off critical stories, Mejia said.

"I felt marred, and scared of course," he said. "I have a family, you never know how far things might go."

Nacif, meanwhile, has pulled strings with successive PRI governors while systematically violating workers' rights, say local and international labor groups including the AFL-CIO.

Nacif did not return Reuters' calls. Puebla Labor Minister Jose Antonio Lopez said Nacif receives no special favors.

Marin denies mistreating anyone. He says the voice on the tape is not his or his words were edited to sound nefarious.

His spokesman, Valentin Meneses, told Reuters the tape could have been forged by political rivals, but even if proven genuine it would not implicate the governor in a crime.

"Suppose it were all true, what is the crime?" Meneses said. "The Puebla governor has not killed, he has not robbed, he has not betrayed his state."

Cacho, 42, filed criminal complaints accusing Marin, Nacif, the state prosecutor, a judge and others with abuse of power, influence-peddling, false arrest and attempted rape. The investigation is still continuing.

"I went 20 hours without sleep, in a car crossing six states, alone, sick, cut off, with two armed police and three agents following," she said. "They asked me in the dead of night if I liked to swim in the sea, if I could swim, and what was a such a nice, pretty woman doing writing such crap."

A top Madrazo campaign coordinator, the former governor of Guerrero state, has quit after he was linked to Nacif in a land deal, although he denied any wrongdoing. A parade of PRI state deputies defected after the scandal.

Marin recently joined a meeting of PRI governors with Madrazo and evaded reporters by slipping out the kitchen door.

Cacho, an activist who runs a women's shelter in the Caribbean resort of Cancun, is emerging as a folk hero who stands up to powerful figures to defend abused girls.

"She has been very brave and above all, an example," said El Cambio editor Mejia. "She is something of a legend. We talk of Puebla before Lydia Cacho, and after Lydia Cacho."